Act now to keep your Children’s Centre open!

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The redesign of Birmingham’s Early Years services is likely to take the best part of 5-6 years from conception to execution. Birmingham’s Early Years Services currently provide support to around 100,000 parents and 80,000 children at any one time. Early years services consist of Children’s centres, Health Visitors, Parenting support and Pregnancy and breastfeeding support services which support parents from the time a child is conceived up until the age of 5.

There has been a major service review over a nearly 3 three year period, and the current procurement process up to the award of the new contract is likely to take a further 10-11 months, there will be a further period where the contract is implemented. This extended period of time and the convoluted nature of the processes involved have provided useful political cover to the Council’s Labour leadership who have still not had to name and own the actual cuts and closures in Early Years services to come.

The prospective providers for the Early Years contract will submit tenders which will provide the detail of the new reconfigured and reduced services and only after the contract is awarded will existing services be de-commissioned, redundancies be confirmed and Children’s centres closed.

Many young families in this city will have direct experience of the support offered via their local Children’s Centre. They are a well recognised and valued service situated at the heart of many communities in Birmingham. If you are concerned about future of your local Children’s Centre and the type of services they provide you need to start acting now while the procurement process is live and before the contract is awarded.

The procurement process starts
At the beginning of September the City Council issued a contract notice for the Early Years Health and Wellbeing service, starting a competitive procurement process which will conclude with the award of the contract in the summer of 2017. Prospective contractors have until 3rd October 2016 to complete the Pre-qualifying questionnaire after which the Council will draw up a shortlist. The annual value is in the region of £34m but will be dependent on public sector finance constraints. (1) The contract will last for a period of five years with an option to extend for a further two years.

Planned Budget cuts to Early Years services
According to recent research from the National Children’s Bureau in the period 2010-2015 there was a 42% cut in Birmingham City Council’s spending on Children’s Centres and other Early Years Centres. (2) The backdrop to these local cuts has been the 50% reduction in the Early Intervention Grant paid by Government to Councils and which is used to provide funding for children’s centres over the last five years. (3)

A further £15.3m is planned to be cut from Birmingham’s Early Years services between 2017-2020 reducing the total net annual spend to £38m (which includes £3m for the costs of commissioning by the Council). Integral to the new service model under tender is the intention to realise cuts of £5m a year from the Early Years budget. The responsible Cabinet member, Cllr Brigid Jones, has stated in Cabinet that the future budget of £34m is a third of what was needed to adequately fund services. (4)

Proposals for a redesigned Early Years Service

The chief features of the proposed new Early Years Service are:

One lead organisation as provider and also leader of consortia of services with whom the Council will contract.
More effective integration of health services, services that support parents, childcare and early education services.
EYS focused on improving health and wellbeing outcomes for children.
Targeted services to need of children and families: Universal Plus offer.

Further the City Council will cease to be a direct provider of some Early Years services and will move to a commissioning and contract management role only.

Intended ‘savings’
The big claim for the proposed re-configured Early Years service is that it will provide greater value for money by rationalising the current system of multiple organisations running Children’s Centre services and child care provision. This will be achieved by streamlining management structures and reducing duplication in the system. The Council cites an unsupported estimate that only around 35% of current funds are available for direct service delivery. (5)

What is apparent is that any efficiency savings made will also be combined with reductions in levels of service currently provided by the Children’s Centres and that the majority of Birmingham’s 60 Children’s Centres will close.

What might the de-commissioning of Early Years services look like?

a. Reduced access to Children’s Centre services
The new Early Years health and well being offer introduces a two tier level of service, Universal and Universal Plus. The intended targeting of Early Years services involves setting in place assessment processes to determine those families in greater need of support under the Universal Plus offer. It is simultaneously reducing the universal offer of services to many families.

Through checks and services delivered via the ‘universal offer’, parents and children requiring additional support will be identified early so that additional support can be put in place.

Through our proposed new model additional help will be made available to those parents and families who are identified as needing it. Services which can provide additional support are shown in the model and are referred to as ‘universal plus’ services. (6)

The prospective contractors are being asked to identify their proposed assessment criteria to determine which families should be targeted for greater support under the Universal Plus offer.

b. Reduction in universal service activity provided by Children’s Centres
Birmingham City Council has nowhere specified the overall reduction in current level of services and activities which are currently available to children and families on a universal basis via the Children’s Centres. The proposed Universal offer will in future consist of advice, information giving and statutory health checks.

This point was however picked up and understood by parents in the Early Years Health and Wellbeing offer consultation when asked about the Universal Plus offer

Comments from this Parent group were mixed. Whilst the majority supported Universal Services and supporting those who are vulnerable, there was concern that a targeted approach may mean those with greatest need receive services to the exclusion of those with lesser needs. In addition, it was felt the offer should be available to everyone in a manner that would allow those who needed the help to access it, regardless of circumstances, and those that felt they did not need additional support, did not have it forced upon them…

EY Professionals shared some common suggestions and concerns with the Parent group. In particular, there was some thought that everyone should be able to access the service, regardless of circumstances, and “good parents” should not be discriminated against through reduced access or children who are deemed to be doing well , should not have services removed. (7)

These comments go to the heart of the importance of Children’s Centres as genuinely universal services accessible to all who live within a locality. It is by no means clear as to how these key points from the consultation have affected thinking of the Council and the detail of the subsequent service specification for the Early Years contract.

c. Physical closure of Children’s Centres

Council sources tell us:

As a consequence we may need fewer buildings in the future and may be able as a consequence to invest the money we have in services for children rather than maintaining these buildings. (8)

“What we’re trying to do is move away from having lots of physical buildings and move toward having more floating support going to where kids are already,” Jones said.

“Tacking children’s services onto visiting other nurseries and health centres, tacking them onto places that already exist, rather than standalone buildings.” (9)

There would, in effect, be ten Children’s centres (as opposed to the present 60 centres) but each of the ten centres would be made up of a ‘cluster’ of venues. This would represent a move away from a ‘centre based’ approach to delivery to one which is more ‘service based’. (10)

According to the tender documents the total running costs of the present estate of Children’s Centres is £2.5m. (11)

Is your Children’s Centre at risk?
As stated above there is an intention to save money by reducing the running costs of the Children Centre buildings through closures.

In the tender documents provided by Birmingham City Council there are two important sets of information, firstly, a spreadsheet providing the running costs of each individual Children’s Centre and secondly, a risk matrix of the costs and problem factors relating to the management of each of Children Centre buildings. They are provided to inform prospective contractors on the likely capital and running costs to enable them to prepare their tender bid.

They can be accessed by clicking on these links:

Children’s Centres risks and opportunities

Children’s Centre running costs

Comparing the two documents against the name of your local Children’s Centre will provide you with ammunition to start asking questions and lobbying your Councillors and campaigning to keep the centre and services open. Remember the issue isn’t just about buildings but what services children and families will be able to access in future.

Public Consultation
Birmingham City Council has staged a recent public consultation on the proposed new Early Years offer to families. The 7 page long Early Years Health and Wellbeing Services Consultation document (12)  sets out the principles for the new service model and this was the basis of the consultation with parents and the public.

This document provided no explanation of the budget situation and scale of cuts to be made to the Early Years Budget. The scale of likely Children’s Centre closures is not identified, information which is available in Committee papers. There is no comparative information on the current levels of service and activity provided through the Early Years service and that which is likely to be provided under the new service model. It does not allow sufficient information to enable families to understand the impact of the likely changes upon their individual circumstances. Arguably this consultation did not provide sufficient information to the public to ensure the process is fair nor did it provide sufficient reasons for any proposal to permit intelligent consideration by members of the public.

The Council has said it intends to hold a second period of consultation once the detailed proposals for services are available. (13)

The Council needs to urgently clarify whether this will take place before or after the award of the contract. If it is after the award of the contract then there will be very little difference that any further consultation can make.

 

 

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